A Shaft of Light at
Darkness, light and mixed emotions at the 2004 European
OpenDemocracy, 18 October
The man at the Socially Responsible Banking stall has
his head in his hands. Business for him is slow to nonexistent.
He looks glumly across at the stall opposite, which
sells Che Guevara merchandise. It is fivedeep
with customers. Anticapitalism is good for business
here. If he didnt know this before, he certainly
His story repeats itself right across the great hall
of Alexandra Palace in London, the nervecentre
of the European Social Forum 2004. There are lines of
stands and stalls as far as the eye can see selling
books, giving away leaflets, urging the signing of petitions,
offering membership, promoting parties or religions.
Here is the Trotsykist Fraction, presumably some mathematicallycorrect
splinter group, competing with the nearby Bolshevik
Tendency for the largest number of unreadable pamphlets
distributed over the course of the weekend. Over there
is War on Want, nearby is the Turkish Communist Party
and in a far corner are the shinyeyed and only
faintly sinister people from Share International, devoted
to spreading the word about the imminent emergence of
Maitreya, the World Teacher, who is coming to save us
all. I feel like asking them why he didnt emerge
on Friday and save us all this bother, but I worry that
I might never escape.
This is not my first social forum, and certainly not
my first activist gathering. Ive been doing this
sort of thing for half a decade now, and its all
very familiar. There are an estimated 100,000 people
here from all across Europe, all keen, all busy, all
trying to get somewhere. There is a world to be saved,
and theres no time for messing about.
I fight my way through the throng, waving off the billions
of Socialist Worker sellers who throng every available
space bellowing Blair Must Go! and End
The Imperialist Occupation! to make themselves
look busy while everybody ignores them. The runup
to this years forum saw a good deal of disturbing
hardleft powerplay, which Ill look
at in detail in another openDemocracy article. One result
is that its impossible to turn a corner without
competing gangs of Trots thrusting aggressively redtopped
newspapers in your face. After a few hours they all
merge into one. I find myself almost admiring their
enthusiasm, in a mournful kind of way. All that energy
and commitment devoted to something so pointless. Why
dont they give it up and do something useful,
like lend a hand cleaning the floors? Its a dreadful
mess in here. There are discarded leftie newspapers
Im trying to get to a speaker session on climate
change. There are thousands of events on over the three
days of the forum workshops, plenaries, speaker
sessions, cultural events, fringe events and plenty
more. Many of them are here in the great hall, which
has been subdivided for the purpose with sheets of black
cloth, which together create ten crude meetingspaces.
The overall effect of ten speaker meetings, all electronically
amplified, all being held at once in the same huge space
is brainscrambling. Whoever came up with this
idea is very unpopular this weekend
I give up. I cant find what Im looking for
and Im just getting overwhelmed. To get the best
out of a social forum you need an unquenchable, boundless
optimism. Yes! Another world is possible! And it starts
here! With me!
Try as I might, I just cant muster this today,
perhaps Im thinking too much or looking for where
this is going to get us over just the next year or two
in the world we currently have.
Still, in the absence of optimism there is always beer.
Over in the far corner of the great hall I can see a
sign that says bar. My heart leaping I head
towards it, pushing my way through the melée.
I am assaulted on all sides by flags, banners, tshirts
and yet more newspapers. I am urged to be outraged about
Palestine, Turkey, Colombia, the Free Trade Area of
the Americas, women prisoners, capitalism, Tony Blair,
rail privatisation, capitalism, Islamophobia, capitalism
and Iraq in the space of ten yards. Now I really need
I reach the bar. Disaster! Its playing host to
a Badly Drawn Boy lookalikes convention and the crowd
at the bar is ten woollyhats deep. The barstaff
have harassed glints in their eyes. Ill never
get there before I die of thirst.
I plunge back into the crowd and head for the exit.
In the absence of alcohol, I will settle for fresh air.
The main door is perhaps fifty metres away but reaching
it is a major expedition. Back through the crowds I
battle, the stalls merging into a melange of red, green
and black. Voices from all sides assault me as I struggle
Local organic apples!
End the imperialist occupation!
This is not good at all. I came here to be inspired
and now Im just grumpy. Its a badlyorganised
mess of wildeyed commie beardies, religious maniacs,
flaky students, NGO timeservers and ranting demagogues.
If this is life after capitalism, give me Starbucks
any day. At least you can get served in there.
In short, I am now in a foul mood. But then, just as
Im about to head to the media centre and write
a furious article about how everything is going horribly
wrong, something happens: one of those moments that
only an event like this can give you, when everything
seems to change for no real reason at all.
Outside, it has been raining all day. It must have stopped
because now sunlight begins to fall through the huge,
round stained glass window at one end of the great hall.
I catch it as I am standing, fuming, in the vast crowd,
looking for the easiest way out. It opens up the space,
floods it with light, and suddenly I can see beyond
my mood to what this is, and why. I can see it as Ive
seen it before, and as how thousands of others must
be seeing it right now. I can see it as a vast, chaotic
and remarkable example of what people can do when something
matters to them enough. People have come from all across
Europe to be here, simply because they want something
better from the world. And what will come of it? A lot
of hot air, sure, and lot of used papercups and
cigarettebutts too. But with any luck, something
else as well.
Five years ago, after all, social forums hadnt
been invented. Now they are taking over the world. I
wish there were more seats, fewer Trots, and cheaper
tickets at this one. But maybe its all worth putting
up with, for the end result: a space in which new ideas
can be born which someday soon might be more than ideas,
and which may help change the world for the better after
all. Thats got to be worth holding out for.